Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Likely Story, part 2: Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle

I don't know why this never occurred to me before, but in Apes 68 Taylor really has no excuse for not knowing he's on Earth until he runs into the Statue of Liberty. I mean, it's hard to believe that in all the time he was there, he never looked up at the night sky and saw the moon.

For whatever reason, reading the novel version of Apes made me think that.

Planet of the Apes, as a complex of stories, reveals itself to be all about language as the defining characteristic of humanity. It's not the tools, or the opposable thumb; lots of other animals have those. I read Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee a while back, and one of the ideas I took away from that book is that pretty much everything unique about humanity comes down to degree, not kind. Other species have architecture, use tools, develop communication systems, and whatnot; we just have developed them in greater complexity.

Language, like species, evolves, and it does so virtually without artificial selection. Sure, people sometimes try to police the way we speak, and we've developed things like dictionaries that prescribe rather than just describe language, but most efforts are futile. We can more directly, if slowly, influence the course of certain species. Language, in the apes stories, signifies not merely sapience, but more importantly the capacity to transcend through defiance. The apes' first word is a defiant "no." Language also allows for classification--it's how Caesar, in Dawn, rationalizes killing Koba. Once you've got language, as the chimps in the novel demonstrate, you can keep secrets. It's also how people consolidate power.

The punchline to Boulle's novel is that the same thing that happened on the Betelgeuse planet (called Sorros in the novel--a name given by the humans but also, strangely, used by the apes as well) happens on Earth, too, while Ulysse's in space. There's a slight problem there: Ulysse's narrative ends with this arrival on earth and the realization that he's meeting apes instead of humans. The last line reveals that, then we jump straight to the vacationing couple. The narrative leaves unexplained how, then, Ulysse's manuscript got into space. If he left Earth again, why doesn't he write about what happened? If he didn't leave Earth, how'd it get into space?

The most plausible sequence of events, I think, puts him in space with apes in control (maybe going to visit Betelgeuse?). He smuggles his manuscript and, unable to write in it anymore, he jettisons it first chance he gets. This postulates an antagonistic relationship with the apes of Earth, but there's no reason to think it must be that way. What if they're excited to see him? They might have read of his space flight in history books or records and been waiting for him, wanting to see what he's like compared to the humans they know. That would make for the beginning of an interesting story.


Well, that brings us to the end of the apes...for now. I hear there's another movie in the works, called War for the Planet of the Apes, set to be released next July. I suppose it will be good to revisit this topic then.

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